What's that old cliche? He could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves? Well, Mark Truesdell could probably sell an overweight kid with severe asthma on running for him.
Among other courses, the Rock Falls Rockets' cross country coach teaches economics and psychology. With his econ degree from Western Illinois University fresh out of the printer, he ran a successful sporting goods store in Sterling from 1991 to 2001.
But perhaps his best investment has been in kids ages 14-18. He took a Rockets program on the slow rise and turned it into a juggernaut. As a result, he will receive the Illinois Track & Cross Country Coaches Association's Class 1A girls coach of the year award Saturday in Oak Park.
Everyone remembers their first sale
Truesdell's first big sell when taking over as head coach 8 years ago was to fellow Rock Falls alumnus Mindy Porter on joining the team as his assistant.
"My first decision as head coach was go get Mindy Porter," Truesdell said. "I knew I had to get her the first year. She didn't know if she'd have the time. I told her, 'You've got the time.'
"I don't think I could put a value on what she's done for us. I don't see her as an assistant coach. I see her as a co-head."
That's why, even though she can't make the trip Saturday, Porter uses the words "we" and "our" when describing what the award means.
"I knew that our day would come," Porter said. "Failure isn't an option with him. All of these things were within reach: Yes, you can go to state. Yes, you can do this. Once the kids start to believe it, it just takes off."
Exhibit A: Senior Paige Davis, a key cog on the girls team that placed fourth at state this past fall, the program's best showing in Peoria.
She was at a crossroads during spring of 2011, knowing she might not make the varsity volleyball squad as a junior.
Truesdell pulled her aside and pitched her on running cross country for the first time. He told her, with her help, they'd go to state.
"That right there was enough for me to be dedicated to run cross country," Davis said.
Exhibit B: Senior, Katie Anderson, with whom Truesdell took a more aggressive angle. When she was a freshman, he put her on the spot in front of a class chock full of juniors and seniors and told her she should run cross country.
"That was pretty scary," she said. "He saw my potential from track and was after me for a long time."
She gave in and ran her sophomore year. She went to state, just like Truesdell said she would.
Truesdell continued to single out both athletes on a regular basis. He isn't shy about giving his athletes tough love.
"He never lets kids settle," Porter said. "If they're capable of more, we'll push them to that level. If you're not performing up to your potential, you're going to get called out."
Davis returned a phone call for an interview Friday afternoon after – surprise – completing a run.
She has to keep at it, as she will run for Division-II Upper Iowa University in college under the direction of another Rock Falls grad, Nate Rucker. They're finalizing details on her scholarship, and Truesdell was a major resource in advising Davis on her decision.
Despite running on a bad knee – that was surgically repaired the Friday after the state meet – Truesdell ran with his athletes all but 2 days, when he resorted to biking. That's been his and Porter's policy since Day 1: being out there with their athletes every day, partly to inspire and partly to keep tabs.
"It hurt real bad, and it took a lot of cortisone shots to get through the season," Truesdell said. "When I first started the program, I figured if I'm going to push kids, I've gotta be there. If I'm gonna talk the talk, I've gotta walk the walk. But these days, I just want to be there with them. I'd go crazy if I'm not going and doing something."
Adding to his "cred" is the fact that Truesdell played D-I baseball for the Leathernecks.
"He worked hard in baseball every day," Davis said. "That hard-working mentality rubbed off on us. He gives you determination that you have to work hard at something if you want it."
When a runner sees Truesdell closing in their rearview, they can brace for some "inspiration."
"You know if he catches up to you, it's not going to be a conversation you want to have," Davis said. "But if he didn't pull me aside over and over again, I might not be running after high school."
Over the years, Truesdell learned to groom athletes who are wired just right to help crack the whip. Brandt Cole, a senior who placed 15th at state in November, is a perfect example.
"You need a couple of those," Truesdell said. "I can go to Brandt and tell him, 'I'm just a crabby old guy, and you're one of them. They'll listen to you.' You've got to groom those kids, so they can go talk to them."
It's always been about the kids for Porter and Truesdell, In fact, he felt "kind of embarrassed" when longtime Sterling track coach Tom DePasquale, now a full-time teacher's aide at Rock Falls, told him he'd been named coach of the year.
"I kind of found out the backwards way," Truesdell said. "He told me congratulations, and I said 'What are you talking about?'
"So I got on the Internet and my name is on it. So I figured, well, I'd better go."
It's a partnership
Rock Falls coaches' file
High School: Rock Falls, Class of 1986
Teaches: Economics, government, psychology
College: Western Illinois University, completed economics degree in 1990; earned teaching certificate from Northern Illinois in 2003
Family: Wife of 19 years, Jennifer; son, Zac, in a junior at Sterling; daughter, Jenna, is a sixth-grader at Challand
High School: Rock Falls, Class of 1994
College: Pre-med at Augustana College
Family: Husband of 7 years, Ben; sons Connor, 6, and Lucas, 3.